Tuesday, November 5, 2013


KIRPAL GORDON: For over three decades you've been fashioning a prose style focused on the ultra-minimal. Publishers Weekly has called you “one of the innovators of the short short story,” and Luc Sante, a guy who knows, wrote of your most recent collection, Lift Your Right Arm (Pelekinesis, 2013), “It's the equivalent of a whole shelf of books.”

I loved its humor, especially the way words kept meaning and unmeaning themselves as cliché, pun, shorthand, commentary and joke. Is it too much to say that you've broken away from writing as a text in favor of writing as object, artifact or plastic art?

PETER CHERCHES: I started thinking differently about the page around 1979 or 1980, when I was writing “Bagatelles,” one of the short prose sequences in Lift Your Right Arm and a breakthrough piece for me. It coincided with my move to the East Village from Brooklyn, where, at the time, there was a real hothouse environment of writers, musicians and artists cross-pollinating. I wrote a short memoir of the downtown scene of that period: http://www.mungbeing.com/issue_44.html?page=8#3414

The scene pushed me to start thinking about where I was going as a young writer, what I wanted to do. I was especially awed by the beauty and purity of Mondrian's grid paintings, and “Bagatelles” started as my attempt to invent a kind of “geometric fiction.” I decided to use a relationship to represent aesthetic or formal relationships, and kept the materials very spare. And the title, “Bagatelles,” was an homage to Webern's “Six Bagatelles for String Quartet,” an ultra-minimal composition full of strange beauty and mystery. Yet at the core was also the impulse to tell stories--but it was the mechanics, the conventions of storytelling that interested me more than the content of any particular story, if that makes any sense. I do agree that what I'm trying to do is “make things” rather than say things, and to me “text” implies a representation in language of something outside the work, so, yes, I think so!

KIRPAL GORDON: “Bagatelles” is geometric and with utter hilarity exposes the x-y axis of coupledom doom, the inherent incompatibility of the dyad relationship in its constant misreading of the other, putting on the reader's front burner the kind of stormy subconscious that generally brews on the back burner and giving new meaning to that old Disney/NY World's Fair jingle, “It's a small world after all.” I found it very liberating and quite akin to mindfulness meditation. It's a lot harder to take my own subconscious content seriously as factual after seeing myself in your two characters.

It's the second of the book's five tales, and I thought “Mr. Deadman,” with its gallows humor and yin/yang flips a great intro to the collection. You thoroughly permutate, a la Bird, every twist and turn in a word and the word is dead.

PETER CHERCHES: I think that's a generous compliment rather than a question, so thank you!

KIRPAL GORDON: Permutate as in to play out every combination of elements but also as in to finish, to put to rest, to erase. Each skillfully ordered section does this in a different way, which, in a book that gains more by saying less, is a particular delight. Nevertheless, weighing your existential Borscht Belt stylin' and your remark, “I'm trying to do is 'make things' rather than say things,” what's the difference between reading Lift Your Right Arm and hearing it performed, particularly the deadpan “Mr. Deadman” or the zen-like “Dirty Windows” or the nutty triologue, “Trio Bagatelles.”

Checking your Facebook posts about your recent book tour in California, I wonder what selections you read from and how you feel about the page over the stage or the spoke over the writ.


PETER CHERCHES: Having turned primarily to performance for a time in the '80s, the live delivery of my work is important to me, and I hear the cadences and silences in a certain way and deliver them the way my writerly ear hears them, but I also like the fact that each reader may bring her own inflection to the page. That was partly the point of “Trio Bagatelles,” the most “anonymous” of the sequences in the book as there are neither names nor genders specified. For the readings in California I chose a few selections from each sequence except “Trio Bagatelles,” which doesn't really work solo. In addition, I read outtakes for each of those sequences from my new companion ebook. I also mixed in some other short pieces from my collection in progress of real and fake autobiography and memoir.

KIRPAL GORDON: I want to get to the autobiography, but first a word on those outtakes! Your publisher, Mark Givens, at Pelekinesis just announced that Outtakes From Lift Your Right Arm is now available exclusively for the Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Outtakes-Lift-Your-Right-ebook/dp/B00F8GO6OM/) at the incredibly lower price of $.99. Are you happy about all this access and has the changes in the publishing industry given you hope or despair? Do have other ebook projects in the works?

PETER CHERCHES: The idea for the outtakes ebook grew out of a blog I started to promote Lift Your Right Arm. I had quite a number of pieces written for each of the sequences that didn't make the final cut for various reasons, not necessarily quality (I address this in my preface to the ebook). After I put a bunch of pieces up on the blog I approached Mark with the idea of an ebook that would function like the extra features on a DVD or CD, like alternate takes from a jazz session or a film's scenes from the cutting room floor. We see it as a supplement to the main book as well as a promotional vehicle. Time will tell, but we're hoping the low price might help introduce new readers to my work who may then want to go for Lift Your Right Arm, the “real” book.

I like how the technological shift has allowed for a project like this, but I don't think I'd want to do ebook-only projects in most other cases.

On the other hand, though it took me quite a while to get comfortable with the idea, I think the move to web publishing for most “little magazines” is great, as it gives more people access to the work, and allows the writers to share the work on their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Since nobody, writers or publishers, was making money from short-run print journals, this new paradigm makes perfect sense to me.

KIRPAL GORDON: I hear you on the difficulties of the indie press to make dough. Nevertheless, with so much literary content available for free on the web, it seems increasingly difficult to earn a living as a writer, especially for those who, like yourself, question the status quo or at least milk it for a few laughs. Is it fair to say that novels and story collections are going the way of the compact disc in music, that is, people will still “consume” them without having to pay to do so? Is there an upside to this for you? I know that you have been awarded two fellowships in creative nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and that you also write about food and music. Is this the future of the downtown scene, being able to hustle honorably from many different revenues?

PETER CHERCHES: I think that's the history of the downtown scene. But since I've never made significant money from my writing, that aspect hasn't changed much for me. I've pretty much always had to hold day jobs. As far as the future of reading technology is concerned, there doesn't seem to be a consensus from the pundits, and in this area I'm no pundit.

KIRPAL GORDON: I know you're a big Thelonious Monk fan and have penned lyrics and performed a whole series of his tunes, one of which can be seen heard at https://soundcloud.com/peter-cherches/blue-monk. I wonder about jazz as a primary influence and its impact on your writing at the intersection of art and music. Would you say that writing's “meaning” or representation is only a by-product of process?

PETER CHERCHES: I'm going to treat that as two questions.

I'm music obsessed, yes, and music has been an important influence on my prose as well as, more obviously, my performance work with musicians. For me jazz is a kind of parallel to making things with language, with the underlying structure, the chord changes, the tune, being langue, and the solos, the “utterances” being parole, to borrow concepts from linguistics. So, there's the object nature of my prose, addressed above, but there's also a very conscious musical sensibility, with sound and rhythm being essential components of the work, the desire to make sentences that sing and dance. Perhaps this, coupled with the brevity of my work, is what has led many to call me a poet even though I came to the work I do as a distillation of the fiction I was doing before (and continued to do to some extent). There's a side of me that's a frustrated composer/arranger, and I think I often approach writing from that sensibility.

In the '80s I also started doing a lot of performance work, and eventually music (I studied singing with a fabulous singer and teacher, Nanette Natal). Some of my prose pieces were adapted as performance pieces, and certainly the performance work affected and enriched the written work. I'm actually getting back to writing song lyrics and vocalese (setting words to instrumental solos) after some years, and plan to rekindle my collaboration with songwriter/pianist Lee Feldman.

As far as “meaning” is concerned, it really doesn't interest me (and this isn't just a “stance”). But you really couldn't call my work abstract, like, for instance “language” poetry. On the surface the work is very concrete, tight and polished, but for me much of the interest is in the paradox of that kind of closed prose system and an open-endedness as far as “meaning” is concerned. If my work is successful, then I think each piece is a different “trip” for each reader.

KIRPAL GORDON: Yes, a different trip for each reader. That's the aesthetic of the downtown scene at its best---paying the reader the ultimate compliment by not over-directing her attention. This is the artistic milieu you not only draw from, but report on and celebrate. Case in point: your memorial tribute to Butch Morris: http://petercherches.blogspot.com/2013/01/butch-morris-superconductor-1947-2013.html. Like Morris' Conduction, your stories create their own frames of reference. As an example of your most recent work, I came upon “Spinning Exercise #1” in an e-zine called Mung Being:

get under my skin, because that's exactly what you're doing, needling me. What are you talking about? I'm talking about your needling; why do you insist on needling me? I'm not needling you. Oh, come on, sure you're needling me, trying to get under my skin. You're crazy; I'm not needling you; I'm not trying to get under your skin. So what do you call calling me crazy? Well, if you insist that I'm needling you, then I think you're crazy. You're one to talk. What do you mean? You're one to talk about crazy, needling me in your crazy way, trying to get under my skin. My crazy way? Yeah, your crazy way, your crazy way of needling me, your crazy way of trying to get under my skin. I don't know what's gotten into you. Oh, you don't know? No, I don't know. Maybe it has something to do with your needling, your perverse need to get under my skin. Perverse? Yeah, I'd call it perverse, the way you're needling me, trying to get under my skin. I think you're the one who's perverse if you think I'm needling you. Oh yeah, so what are you doing? I'm trying to have a conversation with you. Some conversation, one-sided needling, trying to get under my skin, that's what I'd call it. I don't know what's gotten into you; I don't know how you can accuse me of needling you when I'm just trying to have a conversation with you. I'm "accusing" you, if that's what you call it, of trying to

It's a spin on spinning that--dare I say?--comes full circle.

In perusing Mung Being, I came upon selections from your book-in-progress, Autobiography Without Words, describing as nonfiction and fiction a character named Peter Cherches. What's up with that?

PETER CHERCHES: I wrote a piece called “Autobiography Without Words”  -http://www.mungbeing.com/issue_49.html?page=15#3628 - earlier this year, and my dear friend and one of the great short prose writers, Peter Wortsman said to me, “That has to be the title of a book!” It started me thinking. Over the years I've written the occasional nonfiction memoir, but I've also written a number of tongue-in-cheek, outlandish fictions where the main character is called Peter Cherches. Wortsman's comment crystallized an idea for me--to do a collection of pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, where I'm the main character, but it will never be explicit which stories are true and which are fake. In most cases the reader will be able to figure out which is which, but some might present a conceptual challenge.

KIRPAL GORDON: However minimal in length or scope, your tales are maximally inventive and that goes double for what I've seen of Autobiography Without Words. Would you agree that in earlier collections, like Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee, you worked the one-two combo of jabs of long description followed by a deceptive KO one liner? Condensed Book, on the other hand, quite like Lift your Right Arm, shifts its style of humor to suit each section. “American Tales” is scary funny howling at its madhouse moon. “Myron, Sam & Gertrude: Three Ways to tell a Story,” is a witty send-up of Cohen, Beckett and Stein. “Reading Comprehension” evokes the absurdity of SAT test questions in the age of the nuclear test. The final tale, “Eating Soup,” and the book's front cover, evoke Warhol's famous can.

PETER CHERCHES: Those two earlier books are, of course, very different from each other. Condensed Book is closer to Lift Your Right Arm in that it's mostly short prose sequences, but some have more to do with a parodistic aesthetic than the more consciously minimalist approach of most of the work in the new book. All of the work in Lift Your Right Arm postdates Condensed Book except for “Bagatelles,” which appears in both volumes. But for me the parody-type pieces also fit in with my conception of writing as object, in this case borrowing familiar forms like the standardized test or the Borscht Belt joke meets avant garde literature as the basis for a literary piece.

Between a Dream and a Cup of Coffee is really a pamphlet or a chapbook, and the work is completely different, as the stories are all based on actual dreams. My technique for writing dream stories is to recount odd or interesting dreams to friends, and over the course of telling the dream multiple times I start to embellish and the dream turns into a story. By the time I actually “write” it, the story has already been pretty much completely formed as a narrative.

KIRPAL GORDON: I read somewhere that you attended Columbia's creative writing program, but your style seems the antithesis of the mainstream workshop group mentality. What was your experience?

PETER CHERCHES: You hit the nail on the head. I was a kind of aesthetic pariah my one year at Columbia, where the ideal was to publish in the New Yorker and go to AWP and Bread Loaf conferences. But being an outsider also helped me strengthen my ego; I figured if my work was getting such strong reactions I must be on to something, so I used that negative energy from my peers and teachers as fuel. I finished the degree at Brooklyn College, a much more hospitable environment, where the fiction program was run by Fiction Collective authors, and where I had the opportunity to do a tutorial with John Ashbery, who was extremely hospitable to my work.

KIRPAL GORDON: Connecting with Fiction Collective and hanging with Ashbery sounds like the best of all worlds. Who are some of the contemporary writers you're reading?

PETER CHERCHES: I'll stick with American writers, and if you had asked me two months ago the first two names would be missing, as I've only just discovered them. And since quite a few of the writers I love are also close friends, I'll avoid playing favorites by mentioning none of them.

I recently finished, and was blown away by, Blake Butler's There Is No Year. Butler is a young guy (born in 1979) who is writing some wonderfully weird shit, and is in complete control of it. The work is mysterious and surreal, the language compelling and often disconcerting. It's remarkable that a book like this was published by a mainstream press (Harper Collins) and has received positive reviews in major media. As a younger writer I might have been envious, but now I'm happy for Butler and for American fiction. I've seen his work compared to Burroughs, but I don't think that's quite accurate. To me it's more kindred to Russell Edson's prose poems, but obviously reviewers of novels would be much more likely to know Burroughs than Edson.

Another recent find is Peter Markus. I first saw his work in an anthology, and that led me to purchase his recent story cycle
We Make Mud. Markus has created a word-world with odd diction and running characters where mud is both metaphor and metaphoric “material,” as if the stories themselves were composed of a kind of mud.

Meg Pokrass is a prolific Bay Area flash fiction writer of quirky, funny, intense and often disturbing tales. A very strong voice. When I had an offer to do a reading in San Francisco I sought her out to share the bill.

For me, the two towering figures of American fiction of the past 25 years are Lydia Davis and David Markson. Davis is our contemporary master of compressed prose that can pull the rug out from under you. Markson's late work was sui generis, though I don't think it's coincidental that he was of the same generation as many of the fluxus artists, Cage, the minimalists. His novels of accretion break all the rules, really ought to be boring and infuriating, yet they're compelling and brilliant. They insist they're not novels and dare you to agree--but you can't agree. I imagine him tinkering endlessly with the sequencing of his sentences. 

KIRPAL GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay better informed regarding all of your projects---print and ebooks, readings, performances with music, blog posts?

PETER CHERCHES: I really should do a single, dedicated website, but in the meantime there's my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/PeterCherchesWriter

A page with links to my online publications:

A blog for news about Lift Your Right Arm:

My food and travel blog is mostly dormant right now, but who knows when the spirit will move me again. It has five or six years' worth of pretty heavy content, and also includes early drafts of pieces for Autobiography Without Words.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Giant Steps Press Is Looking for a Few Good Manuscripts

KIRPAL GORDON: I'm pleased to announce that Giant Steps Press is looking for fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts. Please reference the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES at the very end of this blog entry for specifics, but in terms of who we are, let me say up front that we formed three years ago, an attempt by working writers to collectivize in the face of major changes in the lit industry. We've now assembled a team as talented as any I’ve had with the most technologically up-to-date and inspired indie publisher. I don't just mean printing; I mean the whole enchilada:

---book and cover design in PDF for Amazon CreateSpace upload/interface;
---Kindle upload/interface;
---Smashwords upload/interface (mobi, rtf, pdf, lrf, pdb, txt);
---ePub upload/interface (Apple iStore-compliance and Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps including Stanza, Aldiko, Adobe Digital Editions);
---copy editing;
---press kit;
---book launch press release (Scribd);
---GSP blog announcement and interview;
---book reviews;
---promotional video, audio and YouTube;
---literary event production, including catering and marketing.

We supply through one team everything that a writer could need, but each writer decides which of these services are relevant and worthwhile. We are not publishers in the traditional sense of the word; we're in business to offer writers help in developing their audience and publishing their next book. You tell us your expectations for your manuscript---print and ebook sales, reviews, shows, etc.---and we recommend paths to meet and exceed those expectations. Moreover, in contrast to the old writer-publisher model in which the former “is chosen and done to” by the latter, GSP is for writers seeking to become more responsible in the production-distribution of their own work and pro-active in collectivizing with other like-minded writers and collaborators.

Because bookmaking has shifted from decisions made by big conglomerates to individual writers choosing from a wide range of smaller and more numerous fulfillment-of-services model for paperback and eBooks, the real enemy as I see it is a lack of knowledge regarding options, whether from a publishing house, vanity press, POD service, agent, editor, publicist or marketing and promo outfit. Hey, it's the wild West out there. Some friends and literary associates, as well as clients I ghostwrite for, have been hustled by exploiters who over-promise and under-deliver, so it is a personal pleasure to offer prospective authors our complete list of services.

John, you came to book writing after thirty years of playing rock and roll. Would you pick it up from here with your story?

JOHN RULLO: As a songwriter/musician, I witnessed what I knew of the music business collapse right before my eyes. Slowly but surely the idea of getting “a record deal” faded into oblivion. Technology has made it possible for anyone to produce music at home and make it accessible to the world via the Internet. When I wrote my first book, Blind Spots, I had high hopes of getting a “publishing deal” but soon learned what had happened to the music industry had also taken a toll on the literary world...mom and pop book stores were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. It seemed that unless someone was a well-known celebrity, famous or infamous, chances of having a New York Times best-seller were less than zero. A friend in the business suggested I self-publish and recommended a publishing company whose name I won’t reveal. The finished product of Blind Spots was professionally done, beautifully formatted with an outstanding eye-catching cover. The only problem: unless I had endless dollars and time to invest in promotion, nobody would be aware of my work except for friends, relatives and my Facebook world. Without the resources to copy edit, proofread, format and design, vanity publishers could cost an unsuspecting author thousands while never making him/her a profit. In most cases, the publishing houses are raking in the big bucks by charging writers for an endless menu of services dangling the carrot of big royalties!
A good friend of mine just got suckered into dumping over three thousand dollars to a publisher just for making his 40-page short story into an Amazon-available e-book! Would-be authors need to be made aware of the money pit they could easily fall into when signing on the dotted line with most of the “Publishers” out there who are so willing to have their clients’ credit cards on file! More times than not, there is no human face or voice to answer their questions; all correspondence is done on-line and in rare instances by the telephone representative who in most cases only encourage writers to buy more of their services. Since collaborating with you and the formation of Giant Steps Press, I have since published two more books at a fraction of the cost of leaving a manuscript in the hands of the faceless publishers. I know that we can help writers avoid the mistakes I have made, steer them in the right direction and offer honest and necessary services while saving them hundreds of dollars.
Norm, as our new technologies director and member of our acquisitions team, how would you characterize the current state that writers face today?
NORMAN BALL: The whole game today is about control and self-promotion. Let's face it, the industry is flattening. With Amazon's 2011 foray into publishing its own roster of authors, literary agents and traditional publishers are quaking in their boots all over again. These traditional publishing routes will only slow further, especially for lesser-known authors, given the fresh uncertainties. The time is right though for collaborative initiatives, skill-sharing and creative-collectives. I think GSP is the right vehicle at the right time.
KIRPAL GORDON: You’ve taken two GSP titles beyond the Amazon CreateSpace print-on-demand and Kindle sites. What's it been like formatting ebooks in this new era?
NORMAN BALL: It's important for people to realize that GSP is really a portal and not a press at all. We provide a proven and travelled path into the various ebook and print platforms, and boy do you need an experienced Sherpa guide! You only need to spend a short time up on the Kindle and Createspace discussion forums to realize that we're very much in the realm of an inexact science. People are going crazy up there trying to get their books just right.
JOHN RULLO: I wasted a colossal amount of time formatting my second book in Kindle. I thought I could do it myself just like I had done my first book, but the number of mistakes just kept multiplying and customer service became an instant oxymoron!  Is Amazon's Kindle going the way of all monopolies?

NORMAN BALL: Hah! That's a whole 'nother debate, John. Amazon is the Walmart of everything Walmart isn't the Walmart of. One morning we'll awaken to discover Amazon has taken over the executive branch of government. They just scarfed up the Washington Post the other day. Within a GSP context though, it really doesn't matter who the behemoth du jour happens to be. GSP is an agnostic portal. No matter the letterhead, we'll tunnel ourselves in and we're bringing your book with us (gestures theatrically to the blog-reading audience).

But back though to the administrative realities of day-to-day book production, the problem with Createspace/Kindle is, as I see it, an existential one. There is no right way to do it. People adhere to an identical procedure only to achieve different results. The vagaries are huge. Exceptions are the rule. I'll cite but a few: appropriate bleeds on book covers, manipulating and arranging images, migrating MS Word mss over to HTM format and using Word in a preemptively smart way as it wasn't really designed to be a desktop publisher or provider of print-ready materials. The list goes on and on. So beyond guiding the book to the summit, GSP helps load the horse with the appropriate provisions before the trip is even undertaken.

Let me remind you also that when you're creating an eBook, you're shooting at as many as nine different platforms, each with it own optimal aesthetic i.e. the proverbial moving target. You have the family of Kindle products, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, etc. So you're trying to strike a balance between all these competing appliances. Finally, the reader fulfills part of the aesthetic experience by selecting his own background, font types and sizes etc. on the appliance itself. I cannot stress enough the fluidic nature of the eBook vis a vis the traditional 'static' presentation of the physical book. People need to be navigated through this morass. Buyer beware: One size does not fit all.

KIRPAL GORDON: Justin Luke, as marketing advisor to GSP, you have been most valuable in articulating the changes in the industry and for good reason. In terms of author-driven marketing and promotion that Norm mentioned, you scored the hugest possible hit with your first novel, Gulliver Travels, breaking the bank at Amazon, of all places, by the way, which led to a three book deal with ePublishing, print publishing, brick and mortar bookstore distribution and full PR marketing blitz. It’s this mastery of the new marketing technologies meeting the mastery of your material that gives us older fools hope in the aftermath of an industry destroyed by greed. In other words, you don’t need to be a midlist author waiting for someone to give you the big break. All that's over.
JUSTIN LUKE: Well, you fine fellas have many decades of collective writing experience, and I'm this young whippersnapper nerd upstart who sorta came out of nowhere. Giant Steps is doing just what its name cautions: taking some mighty big steps. You aren't just offering some bottled or boxed services--your coupling your artistic integrity and creativity to give future customers something better: professional services with an artistic heart. I'd use the term "consultancy" but it's so rigid and corporate-sounding. When our powers combine, we will offer dreamer-artists a strong shot in the arm and a realization of all they can do without the help of some big box publisher.
JOHN RULLO: As a founding member and the one with the most experience in the writing game, how do these changes play out for you, Kirpal? 
KIRPAL GORDON: We just launched New York at Twilight, my second title with GSP, which, thanks to this new team, looks and reads just right. The process went even more smoothly than with my first GSP title, Round Earth, Open Sky

As for experience, after finishing my post-grad degree, I worked in publishing as a copy writer, copy editor and proofreader; taught college writing; gave classes behind bars in GED language arts and produced a bi-monthly prison newsmagazine and an annual literay arts journal. I  also review literature and music; teach creative writing workshops; lead a spoken word/jazz band; do freelance journalism; interview artists and art activists; and over the last twenty years I've been a ghostwriter, editor, coach and literary consultant for a range of clients on over forty books and 250 articles.  

I've been involved in the indie press as a fiction, music and poetry editor. As an author of over twenty titles of my own original work, I've enjoyed great relationships with excellent presses that proved strong on literary merit but weak on marketing. They've all but disappeared in these changing times, thanks to increased fees from distributors, printers, storage rentals and the evaporation of the local book store.

So I'm glad to be helping writers find their own way into print and beyond, even more so now that I'm with this can-do, soup-to-nuts team. These new technologies confound me, but collectivizing with people whose skills exceed mine has changed my outlook considerably.

JOHN RULLO: Norm, you spoke briefly about the industry today as well as the advantages of going the GSP route. What do you think the future holds?
NORMAN BALL: As you touched upon, J, books are now where music was maybe ten years ago i.e. in a state of creative turmoil, except the creative part only became evident in the music world very slowly. For a long time it was just turmoil. Publishers should take some heart from that. While the bookcase may be leaning, the sky is not falling. For example, you may recall the RIAA throwing single moms in jail when their kids pirated tunes on Napster? I think these periodic business model eruptions create identity crises that ultimately lead industries to better self-awareness. Music got to know itself better and learned just how much of a social phenomenon it really is. Today, the performance venue is a potent source of sales. People buy stuff, CDs and T-shirts, at the back of the hall fresh from the buzz of a live performance. You have a pumped-up captive audience. Music is an encounter more than a shrink-wrapped product. There’s the souvenir effect too, where the energy of the encounter can feed into the product which becomes a relic or a keepsake of the event. Book fairs are a poor uncle by comparison. Quite simply, they don’t immerse anyone in the reference product. Yes, readings are okay. But books are not natural performers. Music is also an ambulatory pleasure that does not require your undivided attention. It’s portable. Reading is more demanding of your time and your posture. It’s hard to jog while reading.
KIRPAL GORDON: While music has both a private (solo listening) audience and a public one (live shows), don't books offer a solitary communion between reader and text?

NORMAN BALL: There’s a powerful Gutenberg bond, the tactile relationship to paper that Sven Birkerts really nails in his 1995 book The Gutenberg Elegies. Sure, there are a lot of social experiments underway around the periphery of this bond: opinion-sharing on goodreads.com, online Amazon reviews, enhanced ebooks, and the like. But as Birkerts pointed out, the relationship between author and reader is very much a ‘univocal’ one. We're speaking here of that little dictator, the omniscient narrator who, when he's in really good form, won’t let you put the book down.

So the book offers an intimate, quasi-spiritual relationship, not an immediately exterior or social one. The Wall Street Journal ran an article in January 2012 about the disappointing sales to date of many costly enhanced eBooks. Less may be more with books. You see, we’re in the tricky realm of the immersive versus the distractive—when does the distractive add up to the subtractive in book reading? It’s a testament to just how powerful the personal, reading experience is that the interactive bells and whistles have struggled to find traction.
KIRPAL GORDON: Give it time. Right now it’s a boutique service providing new opportunities for books with a niche market. Rather than threaten books and their unique entrancement, enhanced ebooks offer the drama of cinema and the enchantment of the oral tradition (spoken word) which has been around a lot longer than books. Instead of overstimulation, ebooks may end up offering hybrid media thrills for folks without the attention span that books require. 
NORMAN BALL: Well, I agree. You could see a hybridization of the book-reading experience and yes the affinity for physical books is in some part a generational phenomenon. Yet I think we'll find pulp to be a stubborn medium nonetheless, at least for some material segment of the reading public, and for a long time to come.

Digital goodies can feel like an obtrusive third-party in the reading experience. Too many hot links diffuse the encounter. eBooks should only very selectively point away from themselves. So yes, books have a lineage not easily overtaken. The industry is realizing that it was trying to foist, via enhanced ebooks, wannabe software apps in disguise. You can almost hear the outcry. God, not another app! People already have tons of software apps. When they buy a book, they’re buying a version of solitude. The ‘enhancements’ (hired actors reading passages, video evocations of certain key scenes, etc.) create a hypertextual ‘poly-vocal’ experience, to borrow again from Birkerts. Think Windows multitasking, except with binding and glue. People already have Facebook with all its prying fingers and obsequious detours. Maybe they want to unplug, curl up in the corner and engage one voice with a demonstrated knack for spinning a good yarn! Storytellers will never go extinct. So far, enhanced ebooks have been an application in search of a market. That’s rarely a good thing. Sales have been tepid.

KIRPAL GORDON: According to James Surowiecki's "E-Book Vs. P-Book," The New Yorker (July 29, 13), "In a recent survey by the Codex Group 97% of people who read e-books said that they were still wedded to print, and only 3% of frequent book buyers read only digital." However, I think any author must be aware of the potential of an electronic book, which is cheaper to make, cheaper to mail and cheaper to market. I think this is one of the best reasons for joining GSP---we're ahead of the curve with Norm now on board. As a poet-technologist-essayist-MBA-degreed insider, you stay informed on the subject in order to provide smart ways of navigating this new, ever-changing terrioty.
JOHN RULLO: I’m getting the sense we’ll have to make this a monthly discussion.
NORMAN BALL: Absolutely. Let me try to close this month’s loop by suggesting the death of the physical book, even more so than the CD, has been grossly exaggerated and will continue to be grossly exaggerated by industry watchers. Remember, the music industry analogy works only here and there for books. In 2011, digital music sales barely edged out physical sales at 50.3% (as reported by Neilsen Soundscan and Billboard). Given the hue and cry you’d be excused for thinking physical sales have vanished. They’re still half. Nevertheless, the book business is an industry in upheaval and will continue to change in the immediate and the long term.

JOHN RULLO: As the book industry changes, so are the up-to-the-minute options we offer writers. As a portal/collective on the look-out for how to best serve writers, not an old fashioned publishing house building a 21st century Bloomsbury group, any prose manuscript, fiction or nonfiction, qualifies for our attention. I know that some folks see us as publishers of the sci-fi genre with twisted visitations from the supernatural, but we want to suggest a bigger universe than that. In terms of content, length, genre---the sky's the limit.

KIRPAL GORDON: I think writers deserve to have their material read and responded to by literate and experienced people who aren't trying to take them to the cleaners. Hence to my way of thinking, good faith is best expressed by not charging a reading fee. If we can help writers achieve their stated goals, whether their books become a Giant Steps Press title or appear through another agency or portal, we will be serving a community that presently has no home.

NORMAN BALL: Writing is anything but a commodity. So it's hard to offer a commoditized price list. What we do is evaluate a manuscript and then offer a level of effort estimate that may include any partcular segment or a bundle of segments/services across the entire process. Our attention can begin near the very formative stages, say in the re-conceptualizing of a thesis or narrative through copy editing and proofreading to typsesetting, book cover design, Createspace interface, eBook formatting and finalizing. In the post-production phase, our services extend to product placement, writing press kits, offering audio-video support, doing interviews and reviews, marketing, promotion and creating readings and other events.

There's also the case of the busy executive who lacks the time or the writing skills to author his own book but nonetheless wants a book to get his ideas out into the marketplace. These projects can start pre-concept where ideas are coaxed and developed through interviews and discussions on the way to ghostwriting a book virtually from scratch as I completed recently, for example, with a home improvement book (see above).


KIRPAL GORDON: Regarding the busy executive as well as the industry leader, the entrepreneur re-making our world and the service provider in the trenches who sees a better way to do things, what these people have in common is the need to expose their new and better idea to their niche market. In today's business world, a book that does this acts like a business card used to, that is, it defines who you are, etches your value into the minds of your prospects and puts your product or service on the map. When your book proves helpful or valuable to readers in your market, you have the best chance of developing a lifetime customer.

This is also true for fiction writers, whether they write in definable genre categories or not. Our approach is more about helping you build a brand than expecting your book to be a one-hit wonder. So to the question of how much your manuscript-into-book will cost, the best answer is that it's on you. Every book needs the same things: a cover, contents, a press release, a bio of the author, favorable exposure to your market and a plan to sell copies. What distinguishes us from others is that we custom tailor our service to each writer from a menu of many options. We advise you on your options, but you decide the path you want to take.


Giant Steps Press is seeking manuscripts of creative nonfiction, essays, short stories, novels and poetry.

First reading period begins September 15, 2013; ends, December 15, 2013.

Please submit your MS as an email attachment (in DOC, DOCX or PDF), Courier 12pt, double-spaced, Chicago Manual of Style. Please include as well a brief cover letter outlining your background, prior writing credits, specific intents with the MS, snail mail address and phone number.

GSP is a service provider. We do NOT charge a reading fee. We will get back to you with a brief written appraisal of our interest in your work within ninety (90) days.

No snail-mail please.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Norman Ball Resolves Television in Six Easy Payments: Here's Installment One with Kirpal Gordon

KIRPAL GORDON: First of all, Norm, welcome to Giant Steps Press as author of our latest title, Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments available on Amazon, Kindle and in just about every other e-format.
NORMAN BALL: Thanks, KP. It’s great to be aboard the good ship GSP.

KG: Reading your book-length essay on TV, technocracy and the internet was like revisiting the birth of Giant Steps Press. We formed because we’re after work like BR&R, books that cause readers to question the status quo via humor, candor and, for lack of a better phrase, “raids on the Unspeakable” (Thomas Merton) or visitations from the supernatural. I also love your illustrations, many of which appear here. They are an irreverent mixture of high and low culture, like the book itself.
NB: To me it's all sort of the same--high, low, tech, po. In fact, I'd love it if this book helped lateralize the debate and collapse divides, all in pursuit of a less-fractured union. I'm glad you said ‘supernatural’ first. I was no great Ginsberg aficionado prior to the writing of this book. Yet he suddenly appeared all over it like an unbidden insurgency. I came away utterly convinced that the ‘Whitman of his generation’ appellation is well-earned. From 1947-66 he was like the interwar voice of America. Speaking of America, I challenge you to find anything funnier than this Ginsberg recitation. America loves to construct  its icons with the seriousness of a dam project. So it's easy to forget that Ginsberg was funny as hell. By the end of the poem--after a chaste, attentive start--people are laughing their asses off. What's wrong with that?

KG: Nothing at all. On that score you’ve done our readership a great service by providing such a sterling interpretation of his opus, the often misunderstood "Howl." In fact, you trace a through-line from Blake and Keats and the Romantic tradition in England all the way to the present in order to create an antidote for American couch potatohood. It sounds like you had something of a conversion experience while reading the Beats and other beware-of-media literati like Don DeLillo.

The Author's Father
NB: Thanks, Kirpal. It’s funny. I’ve always had a natural aversion to TV. Maybe it’s part-Oedipal as my dad (Emmy-awarding winning TV pioneer John Ball) (PDF) was all about it, though in his own conflicted sort of way. It’s the universal slack jaw of the TV-watcher that confirmed my suspicions of TV as being an energy sink. The Beats, for example, had ants in their pants. Sheer mobility made them bad actors for the TV room. They kept to the road and avoided the spell. An admixture of high gas prices and HDTV informs the dull sustenance of the couch potato. You heard it here first. OPEC and Sony killed the Beats.

KG: Speaking of gas, your lampoon of Route-66 (the TV show) and its attempted neutering of Kerouac’s On the Road is a hoot. To you TV is the Great American Expropriator. Nothing is too sacred that it can’t be flattened, profaned and turned into an ad for jeans. I’m guessing your eye to the politics of American media technology was greatly served by your father’s work in close captioned TV? While working with him in DC you saw the selling of cable and community TV’s future up close. Before that, you’d been weaned on the BBC, yes?

NB: Yes, I cut my teeth quite literally on Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men before emigrating to the States at the ripe old age of four. So I sort of internalized two television worldviews. I’m a walking TV dialectic. In fact I discuss the origins of the BBC in the book. As you bring up antidotes, I'm swallowing more Keatsian pills with each passing day. We start with this Vale of Soul-making, really a  laboratory whose ingredients are spirit and intellect. From there, we rub against earth’s afflictions, producing that stuff called soul. The mediated world diverts us from this direct Keatsian process. Indeed there are powers within our society that encourage this diversion for a host of reasons. Let's just say false consciousness is big business. My father was immersed in TV. But he hated it. He’d also be scratching his head over Keats, Rilke too. Poetry was not his bag. I also spent two decades in telecom in a variety of roles. During the writing of this book, I got the distinct privilege of corresponding  with George Stoney (the Father of Public Access Television) before his death last year. If you can believe it, George began his career in the FDR administration as a socialist firebrand (he was born in 1916)! He was a fascinating blend of social activism and technical know-how. He was lucid to the end and will be sorely missed.

KG: You got the Sixties' New Left philosophers down cold, too, and I found myself concurring with Adorno, Marcuse and Norman O. Brown: TV isn’t just prone to manipulation and distortion; it’s a diversionary device by design. Even the weather’s all wet. Everything is a lie and that’s the truth!

NB: I should hasten to add I'm not a Marxist. Actually I'm a homesick capitalist who mourns the current deformation that strives to drape itself in capitalist narrative, corpo-fascism. Jerry Mander was unequivocal. TV should be tossed into the dumpster. On the Weather Channel the postures of the on-the-scene reporters are often exaggerated during torrential rains and high winds to inject entertainment value and a sense of danger. So yes, the storms are suspect too.

KG: Be very afraid but don’t switch the channel because the sexy weather gal is about to have a wardrobe malfunction? Like Marcuse’s Domination Principle regarding “the establishment,” TV seems capable of absorbing any joke we can foist on it.  As you point out, it’s a shot of mad, greedy, tyrannical Moloch all the way. Yet your lampooning of our entrapment (cultural entrancement?) is more than just a hoot and a howl. I don’t think I’ll ever view “the tube” or surf the Net the same way again, and that’s the secret power of your book.

NB: I'm really not saying anything new in that regard. I'm hoping my cross-weaving of parallel narratives will coax inquisitive generalists like myself into a broadened debate. But yes, TV as vampire is part of the energy sink phenomenon. The Left knew their worker-led revolt was doomed due to TV mesmerism. So they scrambled, added 'New' to their brand name--you know, whiter-whites--and injected Freud because Marx alone wasn’t cutting it. Media is in the business of manufacturing  consent which is as much a psychological phenomenon as a political-economic one. Anyway it was all largely for naught. The proletariat is not about to stream out into the streets with a 70-inch sensaround box singing in the corner. You never know, in the mad rush to the Bastille another prole might sneak in and steal it. Ferlinghetti said it just this year: Ginsberg was dead on the money with Moloch. We sacrifice our children to him every Saturday morning. He feeds them Sugar Craps. They hand him limbs later on as teenage-mutant diabetic amputees. Moloch trades sugar for souls. Appendages are the appendices of the screen era.

KG: The book moves deftly among many topics that you manage to cohere into a single focus: your own immigrant’s tale, growing-up vignettes, insider lit lore, poetic leaps over philosophical matters and riffs most extraordinaire on Milton Berle, Father Knows Best, JFK’s assassination, inventor John Logie Baird, The Housewives of This 'n' That---you name it.

NB: Yes, I named it and then some. My point of origin was really the late David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay e Unibus Pluram where he notes to his fellow fiction writers the overwhelming effect television has had on his (and my) generation. Ours was the first where television was not subsequently introduced into the home. It was the glowing a priori box in the corner. You can feel the difference in older writers such as John Ashbery in terms of their relationship to TV. At the time Wallace was writing the essay, I was immersed in management consulting circles breathlessly trumpeting the approach of the 500-channel universe. A few years ago a literary colleague who was familiar with my technology background asked if I’d read the Wallace piece. I hadn’t. After reading it, I felt a strong compunction to offer my own State of the Union, sort of a ‘where are we now’ twenty years later. Of course the Internet has happened in a big way since then too, which I cover extensively. The book went on to explode in a hundred directions from there because TV is like the Khyber Pass of our culture. As you mentioned a moment ago, it gets its mits on everything sooner or later.

KG: Your immigrant ‘observer’ status is yet one more mediating screen?
NB: Screens atop screens. The stranger’s eye often sees the obvious with a clarity unavailable to the habituated onlooker.

KG: So what does the title mean?  I know it is a translation from the second of poet Ranier Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies.

NB: Yes. Between River and Rock is part of a line from that elegy where Rilke posits a uniquely authentic human place apart from the machinations of capricious gods, of which Moloch would certainly be one. For me it means many things; the flitting images on the screen, the inanimate passivity of the viewer and the mediating space between. On a more personal level, it is the constant internal negotiation I engage in between my mother the Keatsian spirit and my father the Socratic inquisitor. Finally the book is about a child striking an immigrant's bargain between the fluidic, idealized mythos from whence he came and the hard realities to which he arrived. Like all of us, I am multiple iterations of a split-screen.

KG: So who is the book written for? Who is its target-market audience?

NB: Well it's not a learned treatise nor an academic discourse, that's for sure. It's something between an extended riff and a protracted romp where I drag in various voices from multiple spheres to keep the thread smart, alive and multifarious. The book targets intelligent, non-academic folks who think they’re losing their minds when in fact they're losing their souls, a far worse predicament. People like you and me, I guess. I meet them every day: bright, cowed, vaguely aware of a slow spiritual leak but unable to localize the fissure. Getting back to the slack-jawed TV face, I'm reminded again of lines from the Second Elegy (written in 1923): "suddenly, solitary mirrors: gathering their own out-streamed beauty back into their faces again." This is downright premonitory of the Media Age! I go into some detail about the way people dressed for TV in the 1950-52 era. It's funny to us now but the early adopters of TV would invite others over for a night of TV. Invariably people would dress as though it was a night at the opera. It took us a while to realize that we could veg out on the sofa because TV wasn't 'watching back'. Lassitude permissioned the couch potato in the TV room before spreading to the public space. In many ways, our self-regard got sucked through that damned screen. I believe we must retrieve ourselves from Wallace's "alone, together" isolation and gather our out-streamed beauty back from the beautiful and haughty deceptions that flicker endlessly on our screens. Media means us harm, you know. This is the Keatsian in me speaking, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, soul is real. Soul matters. Soul content can be expanded or it can be relinquished. Media eats soul for breakfast. To me, it’s become very elemental.

KG: What else ya got cooking, present and prior?

NB: As for the not-too distant past, I have two short-form essay collections How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (2010, Del Sol Press) and The Frantic Force (2011, Petroglyph Books). The first is more politics-oriented. The second tends toward culture stuff, though both bleed profusely across that demarcation. My new Civil War musical play Sides (more on it here ) is partnered with Richard Stafford's play 'Yours'. Also, a guy by the name of Stephen Crane pitched a small novel of his The Red Badge of Courage into the mix too. (Actually Crane was a pushover as he no longer speaks up for himself and the novel's in the public domain.) Included are essays and commentary from a number of history experts. I'm really excited about it.

(Amazon, Kindle and other ePub forms)

Finally, I have a poetry collection coming out in 1Q 2014 from White Violet Press entitled Serpentrope.


KG: Where can people find you on-line?

NB: Well, returntoone@hotmail.com is a good email; also, Facebook is good for keeping up on things. I have hundreds of video on my Youtube channel and I keep up a Jung-Bowie blog, Red Book Red Sail here.

KG: Thanks so much, Norm.

NB: Thank you, Kirpal.